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ALEX SPEIER

Why Jackie Bradley Jr. represents a difficult piece to deal

Jackie Bradley Jr. hit .282/.349/.502 over the last 76 games of the season.
Jackie Bradley Jr. hit .282/.349/.502 over the last 76 games of the season. (Harry How/Getty)

LAS VEGAS — Who is Jackie Bradley Jr.? The question is a fascinating one, and a significant one as the Red Sox contemplate the balancing act of present and future.

On Tuesday, a pair of national baseball writers reported that the Red Sox were open to discussing moves to improve their payroll flexibility, including fielding offers on Rick Porcello, Xander Bogaerts, and Bradley. The Red Sox aren’t so much looking to move payroll as they are open-minded to listening to proposals, according to multiple major league sources.

But Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said the team isn’t focused on shedding payroll, and that its chief focus is quite naturally on mounting the best possible title defense in 2019. In other words, dealing key players makes sense only if the team can do so while replacing their production.

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Bogaerts would be incredibly difficult to replace. His 2018 season, the best of his career, yielded a .288/.360/.522 line with a career-high 23 homers and 103 RBIs. He’s a valuable middle-of-the-order bat who took advantage of opportunities when teams pitched around J.D. Martinez. The only current free agent shortstop who can match his pedigree is Manny Machado. But signing Machado wouldn’t make sense for a team looking to increase payroll flexibility. The Red Sox would have to be blown away to trade Bogaerts.

Porcello is entering the last season of a four-year, $82.5 million extension he signed prior to his first start with the Red Sox. Would they consider moving him if a team offered to take on his entire 2019 salary, and thus freed the Sox to sign a free agent who might command a lower annual salary?

Perhaps. But an acquiring team might simply prefer to sign the free agent rather than take on Porcello’s relatively high salary, or would offer little in return; and the Sox place enormous value on Porcello as one of their foremost leaders. Cora noted that when he had a message to pass on to the players, he’d do so through Porcello, Chris Sale, or David Price.

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“He’s amazing,” said the manager. “The emotion he showed when we won, I mean, he told me the other day, he hasn’t stopped crying.

“Good athlete who gives you innings, fills his position, very accountable. He’s a good one. And we’ve been in touch a lot lately talking about next year how we’re going to use him in spring training. He’s in a good place.”

Different variables are involved with Bradley. He’s not eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season, so his multiple years of team control might make him a more valuable trade asset than even Bogaerts. Yet Bradley’s value — either to the Red Sox or another team — is tricky to establish given the spectrum of possibilities about who he is as a hitter.

Defensively, of course, he’s elite. But offensively, the 2018 season represented another demonstration of wildly divergent performances. He hit .178/.275/.288 over the first 68 games before a season-ending 76-game stretch in which he hit .282/.349/.502 — a prelude to a postseason in which he had several impact hits, helping him to ALCS MVP honors.

In a way, the year made Bradley a marvel of consistency:

2018: .234 average, .314 OBP, .403 slugging.

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Career: .238 average, .317 OBP, .407 slugging.

But in another sense, 2018 added to the idea of Bradley as a player who endures peaks in which he’s one of the better all-around contributors in the game and valleys in which he’s a dazzling defender who is an offensive liability.

That said, what Bradley did over the final months — particularly the work to fine-tune his swing — showed traits that suggest significant upside. From June 23 through the end of the season, Bradley’s 92.2-mile-per-hour average exit velocity ranked 10th in the majors among players with at least 100 balls in play, just behind Mookie Betts (92.3).

After he hit seemingly everything on the ground in April, Bradley started hitting line drives and long fly balls with regularity, suggesting that the discussions he had with Martinez and hitting coach Tim Hyers about swinging on the plane of the pitch were taking hold. Cora saw a player who looked capable of sustained strong performances.

“Looking forward to Jackie the whole season. That’s going to be cool,” said Cora. “He understands who he is now and I don’t think the whole roller coaster Jackie Bradley will happen again.”

Bradley — who has worked with Craig Wallenbrock, the hitting sage who helped transform the career of Martinez — believes he stands on the cusp of his own evolution of a player.

And if that’s true, if the Sox believe that Bradley’s potential exceeds his track record, then he likewise will be a difficult player to deal — particularly on a team that viewed outfield defense as a huge separator from competitors.

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He’d be a player expected to outperform his salary by a significant margin — the sort the Sox are looking to add and retain, not trade. And with just one comparable two-way contributor on the free agent market — center fielder A.J. Pollock, who would cost significantly more than Bradley — he again represents a difficult piece to deal.

In other words, are there players who will interest other teams in a fashion that permits the Red Sox to discuss trades that might free up long-term resources? Yes. But few of those conversations would position the Red Sox to better themselves in 2019 without adding — rather than deleting — salary from their books.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.